From sadistic she-penguin convicts to wolves invading Britain

A trail of books (and illustrations). It starts with a book I got for Christmas, Janet Perlman’s graphic novel Penguins Behind Bars. That leads to writer, artist, and illustrator Edward Gorey and his unsettling narratives. And from there to author Joan Aiken and her Wolves Chronicles (where we will get a note of linguistic interest).

Gorey is the connective tissue. Together with Derek Lamb, Perlman did the animation for the PBS Mystery! series, bringing drawings by Gorey to life. And then Gorey did cover illustrations for some of Aiken’s most famous books.

The flanking books in this chain. Perlman’s Penguins Behind Bars, featuring sadistic she-penguins in a women’s penitentiary:


And Aiken’s The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, set in an alternative history in which wolves overrun Britain:


Janet Perlman. From Wikipedia:

Janet Laurie Perlman (born September 19, 1954) is a Canadian animator and children’s book author and illustrator whose work includes the [1981] short film The Tender Tale of Cinderella Penguin [Or, The Little Glass Flipper], which was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film at the 54th Academy Awards and received a Parents’ Choice Award. Her 13 short films have received 60 awards to date. She was married to the late animation producer Derek Lamb. After working with Lamb at the National Film Board of Canada in the 1980s, they formed their own production company, Lamb-Perlman Productions. She is currently a partner in Hulascope Studio, based in Montreal. Perlman has produced animation segments for Sesame Street and NOVA. Working with Lamb, she produced title sequences for the PBS series Mystery!, based on the artwork of Edward Gorey, and was one of the animators for R. O. Blechman’s adaptation of The Soldier’s Tale for PBS’s Great Performances.

A number of Perlman’s works have come out in book form and also in one or more animations. For Penguins Behind Bars, the (hilarious, over-the-top) trailer for the animated series can be viewed here. A synopsis on IMDb for the 2003 tv short (slightly edited):

A penguin named Doris Fairfeather is framed by her boyfriend Charlie Abaloney for pearl robbery and is sentenced to 10 years in prison. While in prison, one of her prison-mates, Mad’m Millie, teaches Doris about life in prison, and also gives Doris a tip on how to clear her name in the pearl robbery.

For Cinderella Penguin, here’s the book cover:


The whole short can be viewed here.

(Perlman has written two other “penguinized” versions of familiar fairy tales: The Emperor Penguin’s New Clothes and The Penguin and the Pea.)

Edward Gorey. On to the PBS Masterpiece Mystery! series, which shows British tv mysteries. The full set of Perlman & Lamb titles for the show can be viewed here. With Gorey in all his wonderful Victorian-Edwardian weirdness.

Two notable Gorey postings on this blog: from 8/19/11, “From Edward Gorey” (including the memorable “B is for Basil, assaulted by bears”); and from 10/23/11, “The Twelve Terrors of Christmas”, with text by John Updike and illustrations by Gorey.

Much of Gorey’s work carries with it a sense of menace, as in this marvel:


[Addendum 8/21/17: See the comment by Evie below. This wonderfully creepy Goreyesque image is the work of John Kenn Mortensen, not Gorey himself.]

Bits from the Wikipedia article (I’ve included some material about his sexuality, since his work and public life are steeped in a gay sensibility):

Edward St. John Gorey (February 22, 1925 – April 15, 2000) was an American writer and artist noted for his illustrated books. His characteristic pen-and-ink drawings often depict vaguely unsettling narrative scenes in Victorian and Edwardian settings.

… In the early 1950s, Gorey, with a group of recent Harvard alumni including Alison Lurie (1947), John Ashbery (1949), Donald Hall (1951) and Frank O’Hara, amongst others, founded the Poets’ Theatre in Cambridge, which was supported by Harvard faculty members John Ciardi and Thornton Wilder.

… Gorey’s illustrated (and sometimes wordless) books, with their vaguely ominous air and ostensibly Victorian and Edwardian settings, have long had a cult following. [They were ostensibly written for children, and children enjoy many of them, but they also have a huge adult following.] Gorey became particularly well-known through his animated introduction to the PBS series Mystery! in 1980, as well as his designs for the 1977 Broadway production of Dracula, for which he won a Tony Award for Best Costume Design.

… Gorey was noted for his fondness for ballet (for many years, he religiously attended all performances of the New York City Ballet), fur coats, tennis shoes, and cats, of which he had many. All figure prominently in his work. His knowledge of literature and films was unusually extensive, and in his interviews, he named Jane Austen, Agatha Christie, Francis Bacon, George Balanchine, Balthus, Louis Feuillade, Ronald Firbank, Lady Murasaki Shikibu, Robert Musil, Yasujirō Ozu, Anthony Trollope and Johannes Vermeer as some of his favorite artists. Gorey was also an unashamed pop-culture junkie, avidly following soap operas and television comedies such as Petticoat Junction and Cheers, and he had particular affection for dark genre series such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Batman: The Animated Series and The X-Files; he once told an interviewer that he so enjoyed the Batman series that it was influencing the visual style of one of his upcoming books.

… Although Gorey’s books were popular with children, he did not associate with children much and had no particular fondness for them. Gorey never married, professed to have little interest in romance, and never discussed any specific romantic relationships in interviews. … Gorey agreed in an interview that the “sexlessness” of his works was a product of his asexuality. [I wouldn’t say that his works are sexless; many of them have an undercurrent of somewhat deranged, nervous sexuality in them.]

… Gorey is typically described as an illustrator. His books may be found in the humor and cartoon sections of major bookstores, but books such as The Object Lesson have earned serious critical respect as works of surrealist art. His experimentation — creating books that were wordless, books that were literally matchbox-sized, pop-up books, books entirely populated by inanimate objects — complicates matters still further. As Gorey told Richard Dyer of The Boston Globe, “Ideally, if anything were any good, it would be indescribable.” Gorey classified his own work as literary nonsense, the genre made most famous by Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear.

Joan Aiken. From Wikipedia:

Joan Delano Aiken (4 September 1924 – 4 January 2004) was an English writer specialising in supernatural fiction and children’s alternative history novels. In 1999 she was awarded an MBE for her services to children’s literature.

… Many of Aiken’s most popular books, including the Wolves Chronicles (also known as The Wolves of Willoughby Chase series or the James III series), are set in an elaborate alternative history of Britain in which James II was never deposed in the Glorious Revolution, but supporters of the House of Hanover continually agitate against the monarchy. These books also toy with the geography of London, adding a Canal District among other features. Wolves have invaded the country from Europe via the newly built Channel Tunnel. The novels share a varying cast and a variety of interlinked child protagonists – initially Bonnie Willoughby, but subsequently her itinerant friend Simon, Simon’s intrepid Cockney friend Dido Twite (the heroine of most of the books), Dido’s half-sister Is and Owen Hughes (son of Dido’s Royal Navy ally Captain Hughes).

There are 12 Wolves books, starting with The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (1962, over 50 years ago), Black Hearts in Battersea (1964), and Nightbirds on Nantucket (1966). The whole series is amazing, and Aiken’s writing seems not to have flagged over the long course of the series. Aiken grew up immersed in the popular fiction of the Victorian and Edwardian eras; the Wolves books (written for children, but I urge adults to read them, and to start with Willoughby Chase) are written with affection and respect for this fiction.

Aiken matter-of-factly deploys all sorts of details she picked up from her childhood reading, including lots of rare but precise vocabulary. Early in Willoughby Chase, for example, we get a passage with the verb goffer: by a fire a kindly maid is “folding and goffering the frills of twenty lace petticoats”. From NOAD2, with the etymology, which contains a wonderful surprise:

goffer verb [with obj.] (usu. as adj. goffered) treat (a lace edge or frill) with heated irons in order to crimp or flute it: a goffered frill. ORIGIN late 16th cent.: from French gaufrer ‘stamp with a patterned tool,’ from gaufre ‘honeycomb,’ from Middle Low German wāfel

So goffer goes back directly to gaufrer, alluding to a goffering iron as a patterned tool, and gaufrer alludes to a particular pattern, the honeycomb (French gaufre); meanwhile, French gaufre ‘honeycomb’ is the source of English gopher, a creature so-called because of its honeycomb-like burrows. And gaufre is a borrowing from Germanic (in a word that shows up in English as waffle, again with a honeycomb-like pattern), with the same French /g/ correspondence to Germanic /w/ that we see in guerre (as in English guerilla) and English war, garde (taken into English as guard) and English ward, and some other pairs. I learned about the gopher-waffle connection from Paul Kiparsky many years ago, and I still think it’s way cool.

I have to remind you that the details of these developments — including the answer to the question of why French was used to name a creature of the American grasslands (ask yourself why there’s a town named Prairie du Chien in the Gopher State) — are supported by a strong fabric of evidence, not just cooked up by a couple guys trading imaginative speculations.

Getting back to Aiken’s books: given the milieu of the Wolves books, Edward Gorey (with his own immersion in things Victorian and Edwardian) was a natural choice as a cover illustrator. So, #2 above (for Willoughby Chase) and these two (for Battersea and Nantucket):



Note the Goreyesque figure in #6, on the lower right. Here’s a version of Gorey (by Gorey, but amended by me) in a full fur coat:


2 Responses to “From sadistic she-penguin convicts to wolves invading Britain”

  1. Robert Coren Says:

    Our family acquired The Object-Lesson when I was (I think) in my early teens, or maybe a bit earlier, and we all got great hilarity from it. I’m not sure why we didn’t accumulate more Gorey.

    We also, later on, had an edition of Robert Manson Myers’ From Beowulf to Virginia Woolf (which basically did for English literature what 1066 and All That did for English history) with a cover illustration by Gorey (signed anagrammatically as “Dreary Wodge”); casual Googling find no instance of this cover.

    I was unaware that the “Mystery” illustrations had been animated by someone other than Gorey.

    I like the fact that one can tell that the penguins are female by their hairdos.

  2. Evie Says:

    Hello, just to mention that your first Gorey picture is actually John Kenn Mortensen’s, whose style is probably inspired by Gorey :

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